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Beginning ecommerce

If you have a business which you think is suitable for selling products or services online you may already have thought about creating an ecommerce enabled website. You may even already have your product catalogue online in some form, though not necessarily in a form that lends itself easily to an ecommerce setup. Here I’m going to talk about what to look out for when considering an ecommerce implementation, how these systems are put together and how you might structure them and their connection to your existing work methods.

In the beginning was the 'brochureware' website when businesses just wanted to get some details of what they do and where they are online. As security and trust became more established the big players started selling things online and so too did the smaller players. That's one of those advantages of the Internet, you can compete a little easier, sure you still have limited resources but ecommerce is all about working smarter and not necessarily harder. Small businesses are often smarter and more flexible than the big players. So, in order to work smarter you need a system that’s fairly easy to manage on a day to day basis that is a storefront on the Internet for you.

Online shopping systems generally consist of a product catalogue part; a user management part; a shopping cart part and a payment gateway part. The product catalogue part allows you to display the product alternatives you offer, their attributes and prices and such and allows the customer to navigate and search through those choices. The user management part, when first encountered by the customer is generally when they are checking out their purchases and this part saves user account details, email addresses, delivery addresses and often payment details such as credit cards. The shopping cart part tends to manage the delivery charges, tax charges, the order details and passes certain data to the payment gateway part. The payment gateway part connects to a Payment Service Provider to authorise the payment and receives authorisation to complete the transaction. At that point, the customer gets automated emails from your online shop to record the order and say thank you while you now have a new order sitting on your system waiting to be filled and oftentimes an email in your inbox also.

From a standing start, you first need to consider the structure of your inventory. Any webshop system will be structured in some hierarchical categories to enable product navigation. How do you categorise and structure your product alternatives? How do your customers structure these alternatives? How can you match their mental models to make it as easy as possible to discover and purchase what they want? Categorisation tends to be a mutually exclusive process, so once the inventory is catalogued, the workings of search are as important, if not a little more. For relatively small inventories you may be happy to manually manage the categorisation, adding new products and removing discontinued products. For larger inventories that change slowly, the people who implement your webstore for you may fill the product catalogue for you and further additions etc may be manageable on a manual basis. If your product inventory is more dynamic, many online shopping systems provide the functionality to import seperated value files or XML data, which you create from spreadsheets or by exporting from existing offline systems.

So how does this all sit within your business? If you only sell online then this system can be used as your main order / inventory management system but as is more often the case, if you sell through other channels you may want to integrate inventory with the product catalogue in as realtime a manner as possible to avoid dissappointed customers due to synchronicity issues. The closer the integration you need here depends on the speed and volume of sales. Perhaps a weekly or daily update is sufficient for reasonable synchronicity or perhaps you truly need real time integration. Of course the degree of integration has consequences for development time and difficulty as well as benefits for smoothness of your business workflows.

So, to start thinking of using eCommerce as a sales channel, begin to structure your product and/or services into publishable information, bet it from scratch or from existing information systems. Think about costings for delivery of the products and think about what web-based payment methods your customer will require.

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